THE SECRETS OF THE TEENAGE BRAIN

secrets of teenage brain

by Anja Anđelković

It is no secret that adolescence is hard. We have all been through those years of being mad at the world, taking risks, experiencing intense emotions, and having strong opinions about almost anything. Those of us who have children have experienced this more than once, and it is probably even more frustrating if you are experiencing it from the sidelines, as a parent of someone who is constantly telling you to leave them alone. Usually, we think of the teenage years as an obligatory phase we just need to get through and of teenagers as lazy, opinionated know-it-alls whose main purpose in life is to annoy their parents. And while it is understandable to feel this way, it might be useful to know that adolescents aren’t necessarily choosing to be that way – their brains are just wired differently than the brains of adults.

If you caught yourself wishing to know what’s inside that head of your teenager, you’re in luck. Scientists are finding out more and more about the brain in general, and how it develops, and thus, about the teenage brain itself. This won’t help you find out if your teen thinks you are a cool parent, but it sure will help you deal with all of his/her reactions more appropriately as you will, finally, know why they are behaving the way they are.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE BRAIN

Before we get into the consequences of the teenage brain being different than that of an adult, we have to learn how the brain develops and what happens to it during adolescence. Basically, we have to get through the science stuff.

Our brains grow significantly during early childhood and, as a matter of fact, most of our brain is already developed by the age of six. However, there is one more stage when the brain starts developing more noticeably and that is – you guessed it – during our teenage years [6]. In fact, the brain continues this process of maturation even past adolescence and some parts of it, like the prefrontal cortex, are not fully mature until our early to mid-twenties [1].

PREFRONTAL CORTEX: THE BRAIN’S CONDUCTOR

What exactly happens during the brain’s second period of rapid growth? First, it is important to note that most of the more significant changes are connected to the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain situated just behind the forehead [3]. This part of the brain is thought to be in charge of planning, decision making, and emotion regulation. It is often compared to a “conductor”, as it orchestrates the activity of other parts of the human brain [7].

As we approach our teenage years, this “conductor” must ready itself to take on its role to the fullest and it is then that its activity starts to increase. We develop an overabundance of neural connections (synapses) that need to be “pruned” to be used effectively. Scientists used to believe this only occurs in infancy, but as it turns out, it also happens just before we hit puberty and it takes until our early twenties for our brains to reorganize this new brain matter and lose some of the extra connections [4].

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN: THE ADULT BRAIN VS. THE TEEN BRAIN

We have found out that the brain goes through a growth spurt during adolescence, just like children themselves. But what does this actually mean and how does it affect their behavior, emotions, and lives in general?

A POWERFUL COMPUTER WITH A SURGE OF EMOTIONS

Even though it is still under construction, the teenage brain is a mighty thing, especially in terms of its intellectual power. In fact, it is equal to the adult brain in this regard. Apart from that, there is no time in our lives when we can learn as much as we can during our teenage years [9]. This is especially true for taking in information and processing and retaining it. Just think about how you could recollect the slightest of details when you were a teen or how many times you’ve thought your teen had the memory of an elephant.

However, there is an important difference in how teens and adults carry out mental tasks and process information. Adults seem to engage different parts of the brain carrying out the same tasks as teenagers. As the frontal parts of their brains are still in development, teens tend to use the back of the brain (“their gut”) more and when they do engage their frontal lobes they tend to use much more of the brain’s power to get a task done than would an adult. This is due to the fact that adults have already pruned those synapses in the frontal lobes and can make communication between parts of the brain faster, as there are simply fewer roads information can take [8].

STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION, USE OLDER BRAIN PARTS!

Now let’s get back to that gut that we mentioned. You surely have noticed how teens often act impulsively or engage in risk-taking behavior even though they clearly can tell why the reaction was inappropriate. As the frontal lobes are the last piece of the brain development puzzle, teens rely on other, “older” parts of the brain when making split-second decisions. This does mean you were right all those times you told your teen to think before acting, but it also means there is not much they can do about it, as their decisions, especially split-second ones, are simply led more by their emotions than by their frontal lobes [2]

Based on your teen’s moodiness and the fact that they are led by emotion more than reason, you would think that teens are experts in recognizing emotional expression. The opposite is true: exactly because they use cruder parts of the brain more before the frontal ones develop fully, teens have difficulty differentiating subtle shades of expression and can’t, for example, tell a shocked face apart from a frightened one. Of course, as they grow older they start using the frontal lobes more and get better at this [5].

HOW TO LIVE WITH A TEENAGE BRAIN?

Synapses, cortex, lobes, executive functions – when you start listing all these things that factor into the development of our brains, it starts sounding like this fairly new knowledge we gained about the teenage brain is a strictly scholarly matter, useful only for those who understand the terminology very well and also know some greater implications of all these findings. However, all this information about the adolescent brain and its development is extremely useful for parents and teens alike. Firstly, it helps parents have a greater understanding of their teens. As Dr. Jensen, a neurologist, says: “Being armed with facts can help you be a more patient parent because you understand the neurobiology. [2]” So, the next time your teen is faced with a decision, you’ll know that it is better for him/her to have time to think about options than to decide fast and probably impulsively and not give themselves a chance to engage their frontal lobes. Also, you will have a greater understanding of the way they process emotions and the difficulties they encounter on the way.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR TEENS?

And how is it useful for teens to know their brains aren’t quite there yet in terms of development? Teens often can’t explain their moods, feelings, and reactions to themselves, so knowing that there is a neurobiological reason for this might help them learn to accept themselves as they are and teach them to be aware of the fact that their brain is often trying to take the fastest route. They can start to rationalize things consciously and try to engage their frontal lobes as much as they can by discussing the consequences of their actions with someone, as this will lead them to think before they act [10].

It is also important to remember that the teenage brain is extremely powerful and this can be a great encouragement for teenagers who are a bit overwhelmed by all the changes they are going through. Their brains are learning machines and they can memorize more now than they ever will. This is a great opportunity for improvement in areas they weren’t great at or just for exploring their interests and learning as much as possible about them. If you tell your teen that he/she has a power they will never have again, they will probably roll their eyes, but try repeating it to them a lot and ingraining it in their memories because they might end up listening to you just once and using their brain to its fullest potential.

References:

  1. Forster, K. (January 25, 2015). Secrets of the teenage brain.
  2. Gregoire, C. (June 14, 2015). Why Are Teens So Moody And Impulsive? This Neuroscientist Has The Answer.
  3. Mascarelli, A. L. (October 17, 2012). The teenage brain. Adolescence triggers brain – and behavioral – changes that few kids or adults understand.
  4. Nixon, R. & Britt, R. R. (March 31, 2016). 10 Facts Every Parent Should Know about Their Teen’s Brain.
  5. Packard, E. (2007). That Teenage Feeling. Monitor on Psychology, Vol 38 (4).
  6. Schaffer, A. (October 15, 2004). Head Case. Roper v. Simmons asks how adolescent and adult brains differ.
  7. Shimamura, A. P. (April 5, 2014). Surrealism, Creativity, and the Prefrontal Cortex.
  8. The Teenage Brain: Research Highlights. (June 8, 2013).
  9. The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction. (2011).
  10. Understanding The Teen Brain. University of Rochester Medical Centre.
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  1. […] our working memory [2]. It has even been shown that after a course of mindfulness practices, our prefrontal cortex thickens. This is the part of the brain responsible for high-order functions such as […]

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